A Columbus architect wants neighborhoods to plant affordable housing around the region that is local and organic.

Jonathan Barnes calls it “entrepreneurial housing” and his firm, Jonathan Barnes Architecture & Design, has established a non-profit subsidiary called Betterhood to move the concept forward.

The idea is to build small groupings of three-unit buildings on infill lots in neighborhoods that are struggling to revitalize. Residents would have an opportunity to become landlords in their own neighborhoods through property-management training provided by Betterhood. They would buy the building and live in the first-floor unit and rent out the upstairs apartments – a one-bedroom unit on the second floor and a studio apartment on the third.

Barnes describes it as “improving the neighborhood from the inside out.”

People in 54,000 Franklin county households below the poverty line pay more than half their income on housing and transportation costs. According to projections through insight2050, Central Ohio’s population could increase by up to a million people by 2050 – and many of those people will need modest, “workforce” or “missing middle” housing. Demographic trends indicate that the number of smaller households and people living alone will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, residents in Columbus and across the region are often resistant to new development that changes their neighborhood character, objecting to large “people packing” apartment blocks, and worrying about gentrification.

“Instead of fighting development,” Barnes said, “let’s get local control.” He said his model would work best as infill on vacant lots and is not really conducive to large-scale development.

“There is leverage potential,” he said. “It would have the best effect in a neighborhood where people need this kind of housing’’ – where it can be like a stone tossed in a small pond, its ripples growing and spreading outward.

Chuck Marohn likens this approach to having a diversified investment portfolio – arguing that if you spread lots of smaller investments across numerous entities, in the long run, you’ll get more bang for the buck.

Marohn is president of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based non-profit that provides planning and development consulting to communities and produces a widely read website, along with podcasts and webcasts. In one article, he described the strategic redevelopment approach as:

… taking a neighborhood of $50,000 homes and making them $55,000 homes. That’s a solid 10 percent increase in the tax base. It’s wealth that is shared throughout the neighborhood. It’s a real gain – not an illusion – that is more likely to persist than some kind of one-off project. And it’s repeatable. We can nurture 3-to-5 percent annual returns out of these depressed neighborhoods for a long, long time.

The model Barnes proposes has a similar incremental effect.

“Owners benefit from the appreciation from owning a building and from their rental income,” said Barnes, who was promoting his entrepreneurial-housing model even before he learned of Marohn and Strong Towns. “You have a mix of owners and renters, and can form a community among 10 or 20 local owners. It is a more-organic neighborhood.”

To learn more about Strong Towns’ perspective on affordable housing and development strategies, go to:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/12/11/immutable-laws-of-affordable-housing

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborhoods-make-the-best-investment

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/4/18/cities-purchase-big-lots-sell-small-scale-developers